The son of a rural schoolteacher, Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin was born in the small town of Lebedyan on January 20, 1884. Located on the Don River, the town lies in the heart of old Russia, and Zamyatin notes that it was famed “for its cardsharpers, gypsies, horse fairs, and the most vivid Russian speech.” Provincial Russia would figure prominently in Zamyatin’s later fiction, but in his youth, he took little interest in it. Instead, his childhood was marked by a keenly felt isolation. Having few playmates, he regarded books as his real companions. Learning to read at the age of four, he called Fyodor Dostoevski and Ivan Turgenev his “elders” and Nikolai Gogol his “friend.”
In 1896, after four years at the local school, Zamyatin enrolled in the Gymnasium (college-preparatory secondary school) in Voronezh. Six years later, he finished school with a gold medal, which he immediately pawned when he went to St. Petersburg to study naval engineering. During the next few years, he took classes at the Petersburg Polytechnic Institute, spending his summers working in shipyards and factories throughout Russia. He developed an interest in politics, and he soon joined the Bolshevik Party. During the frenetic political turmoil of St. Petersburg at the end of 1905, Zamyatin was picked up in a mass arrest and was forced to spend several months in solitary confinement; he spent his time in jail writing poetry and studying English. In the spring of 1906, he was released and exiled to Lebedyan, but he could not bear the torpor of the provincial town, and he returned to St. Petersburg illegally. It was not until 1911 that his true status was discovered, and he thus escaped renewed exile for several years.
In the interim, Zamyatin had graduated from the institute and had become a practicing naval engineer; in 1911, he was appointed lecturer at the institute. Moreover, he had just published his first stories: “Odin” (alone), which appeared in 1908, records the saga of an imprisoned student revolutionary who commits suicide because of frustrated love, and “Devushka” (1909; the girl) contains a similarly tragic theme of unfulfilled love. Neither story is the work of a mature artist, but both show that Zamyatin was already experimenting with prose technique. His first successful work was the novella A Provincial Tale, which he wrote from 1911 to 1912 during the weeks of seclusion in the country following his exile from the capital. This exposé of stagnation and cruelty in rural Russia sparked a glowing critical response upon its publication in 1913, while his next major novella, A Godforsaken Hole, so offended the authorities by its portrayal of inhumanity in a provincial military garrison that they confiscated the magazine in which it appeared.
In 1916, Zamyatin went abroad to work on icebreakers in England, where he wrote and gathered material for two satiric works, The Islanders and “Lovets chelovekov” (1922; the fisher of men), which depict the constrained reserve of the British with exceptional skill. After the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in 1917, Zamyatin returned to St. Petersburg and immersed himself in literary activities. During the years from 1917 to 1921, he completed fourteen stories, a dozen fables, a play, and the novel We. Zamyatin’s works from this period exhibit a wide variety of styles and interests. They include stories that examine the undiluted passions still found in Russia’s backwaters, such as “Sever” (“The North,” 1966); stories that depict the struggle to preserve humanistic impulses in the...
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